A Tongan-born former Japan rugby international is using his sporting connections to help the South Pacific island nation recover from a powerful volcanic eruption and tsunami in January.

One of the first Tongan players to represent a Japanese collegiate rugby team, William Sinali Latu, who first came to Japan as a teenage exchange student, led Tokyo's Daito Bunka University to the national university championship twice, in 1986 and 1988.

Former Japan rugby international William Sinali Latu (L), founder of the non-profit Japan-Tonga Friendship Association, stands alongside Tonga's ambassador to Japan, Tevita Suka Mangisi (C), at a donation ceremony for emergency relief in Ora, Gunma Prefecture, on April 20, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Japan-Tonga Friendship Association)(Kyodo)

He went on to play 32 tests for his adopted country, including three World Cups, while carving out a successful club career and paving the way for successive generations of Tongan players to follow in his footsteps.

The majority of the roughly 200 Tongan citizens currently living in Japan are involved in rugby, with many playing at high schools and universities.

Mindful of the challenges they face, the 56-year-old Latu established the non-profit Japan-Tonga Friendship Association to help their transition to life in Japan.

"While there are some players who can strive to represent Japan, others can't make the top team and leave university without learning any new skills," said Latu, who works for a subsidiary of Panasonic Holdings Corp., the parent company of his former club team, now known as Saitama Wild Knights.

File photo uploaded to the official Facebook page for the Tonga Geological Services on Jan. 14, 2022 shows geologists watching plumes coming from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano. (Kyodo)

Latu, who has taken Japanese citizenship and speaks fluent Japanese, had difficulty getting the NPO off the ground, with a number of banks telling him it did not meet the strict criteria for opening an account.

He eventually made progress after crossing paths with a rugby-loving bank branch manager who once played against Latu at university.

"The connections you make through rugby are amazing," said Latu, who was deeply moved by the encounter.

The NPO was only months away from its planned start of operations when the undersea Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha'apai volcano began erupting in late December.

The eruption reached a powerful climax nearly a month later, triggering clouds of volcanic ash and tsunami that hit several countries around the Pacific and left parts of Tonga devastated.

Looking to help Tongans affected by the disaster, the association sprang into action in pre-launch phase, seeking donations from across Japan.

Rugby teams, businesses and individuals from around the country heeded the call, enabling the NPO to recently transfer around 30 million yen ($235,000) in emergency relief to the Tongan Embassy in Japan.

"I hope the donations can make even a small impact in helping Tongans restore their lives," Latu said.

Hirotoshi Otokawa, an official of the Japan-Tonga Friendship Association who has known Latu since he arrived in Japan in 1985, said the NPO's founder visited each donor to express gratitude for their generosity.

"The diligence and care he showed everyone was even more Japanese than a Japanese person," Otokawa said.

In the future, Latu hopes to help Tonga address its lack of industry and lessen its economic dependence on foreign aid and overseas remittances from migrant workers.

To that end, he dreams of opening a Japanese language school in Tonga to help train people who will be eligible for skilled worker visas enabling them to pursue jobs in Japan other than rugby.

Founder of the non-profit Japan-Tonga Friendship Association, former Japan rugby international William Sinali Latu, is pictured at the association in Ora, Gunma Prefecture, on April 19, 2022. (Kyodo)